In the very early spring of 1988, I would hop a train to take me from my home in NoHo to the second stop in Brooklyn. Then, a short walk to Brooklyn Law School. Then three events changed the way I travel within the City.
One morning, as the subway moved slowly toward Brooklyn, the smell of smoke begin to permeate the car I was in. The train stopped. I was in the last car. Suddenly those in the forward cars started to move en mass to the rear where I was seated. The crowd attempted to open the back door to escape onto the tracks and away from the increasing presence of smoke. The door was locked. Some people tried to close the cars window others; wanted them open, and a fight broke out in the panic. Moments later the fire department arrived and led us to a catwalk then up a steep ladder to emerge in Foley Square. Sometime later, on the same subway line, a fire broke out in the subway tunnel between Manhattan and Brooklyn. The train stopped, my heart skipped and the train moved forward at a snail’s pace thru the fire to the first stop in Brooklyn.
In early spring of 1990, with all this in mind, and unrelated to these incidents, I met with the head of the New York City transit authority. During the meeting, I learned that there is a huge ventilation system built into our subway system to keep the air flowing within all our underground tunnels. I immediately thought of the saran gas subway attack years before in Tokyo. And I have not been on the subway since. Saran is the deadest of all gases and was created by the Germans, but never used under Hitler’s orders.
Why all this comes to mind today is that our political and social scene, within the last two years, has changed dramatically and, with that, the increased power, size and platform of those people who would initially turn to violence to seek the ends they desire a violent shift to the very extreme right. And not just in the United States. In Europe we are witnessing the rise of populism, nationalism and the radicalization of large portions of society. Within the last few days, the National Socialist Movement (NSM), flying the Nazi flag, threatened armed violence to destroy those they deem “freaks” in Detroit. That and other platforms motivate the individual –the lone wolf—the loner who believes all others have failed to move fast enough or strongly
enough to their conception of a proper form of society. They want to be the poster person for change, and they live among us in plain sight.
Like others who have concentrated on the operations of ISIS and other organizations of foreign terror, we have given little thought to the lone wolf in our midst until an event occurs and even then, we do not expand our investigation. It loses its headline factor. We must change our focus. We had been momentarily rocked in 2016, in Florida when a lone wolf attack took the lives of 49 people and wounded scores of others. In this past year, 11 people were murdered in a Pittsburgh synagogue, and there was yet another who mailed homemade bombs to liberal politicians and CNN. And most of us remember with horror Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, and the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City in1995. That attack killed 168 people and wounded 680 others. But what is seared in my mind were the scores of children, who were in a daycare center in that building who died. Two men and the death of 168 people.
None of these events have created a sustained law enforcement focus of the lone-wolf, his profile, his individual motivating force and how we combat that menace. In a marvelous article written by John Ubaldi in “In Homeland Security”, we are introduced to that terrorist. “The actions by individual terrorists have become harder to detect, because these perpetrators often live in the shadows, operate alone, and do not communicate their plans or intentions to others.” They are, in most instances, unmarried and are politically and socially connected to the utterance of some extremist group. But they act outside the network or group they admire. In attempts to be able to track them, which is extremely difficult, law enforcement monitors the social networks looking for the extremist. But by the sheer size of those engaged in spuming their hate on social network, it is as if we were searching for a needle in the haystack. It becomes an almost impossible task to pinpoint the person likely to act out their views because, as noted, as loners although they might rant on places such as Facebook, they do not communicate their intentions to others. Undercover agents, while very effective in tracking a terrorist group activity, are not in most instances available to track the lone actor because of the size of potential individual actors.
In the 1970s, a Japanese man sought a visa to the US that was denied multiple times. Thru some fluke, the State Department ultimately granted his request. When he arrived in NYC, he rented a car and crisscrossed the US, living in his car, and buying empty fire extinguishers, nails and explosive ingredients. His intentions where to explode the car in Times Square. For some unknown reason, he stopped in the last service station on the New Jersey Turnpike before entering New York City. When he returned to his car, it was alleged by a state trooper that he drove out of the large parking area at an excessive speed. When stopped, the officer also alleged that he saw the bombs on the back seat, and he was arrested. Notwithstanding a strong procedural attack on the arrest, he was convicted. Caught by sheer luck and convicted. If he had not stopped at the service station, in all likelihood, there would have been a successful terrorist attack. The lone wolf—those who live in “the shadow of Society.” No defense. There have been multiple attempts to explode bombs in NYC, each has failed for one reason or another and not because we were tracking the particular terrorist, a lone wolf.
In June of this year at the G-20 meeting in Japan, the U.S. joined other nations in calling for social media companies to crack down on violent terrorism content on line. It is hoped that the social media would not permit the use of their platform to facilitate terrorism
Some have suggested that the social networks be more intrusively monitored by law enforcement. Others have chanted “privacy” or the Second Amendment. I am reminded of a former colleague whose daily complaint was aimed at the police until the day they allegedly took too long to respond to his call. Clearly, there must be an accommodation between the two—law enforcement and privacy. We live in a fluid society with radical changes in demography, communications and easily obtained methods for mass violence. Defense against the lone wolf must be viewed pragmatically. We don’t live in an ideal world; the “slippery slope” argument is never an appropriate argument, and reality must be our guiding principal.